Sneezing Greetings

Allergies to greenery and other holiday trappings make some people miserable.

by Beverly Burmeier

November/December 2011

From a very young age, being around live Christmas trees, wreaths and other greenery would cause Kelly Estes of Jacksonville, Florida to suffer an asthma attack. The 37-year-old mother says, “Now my family always has artificial trees. On the bright side, you don’t have to water an artificial tree or worry about it dying or about critters that may be living on it.”

For people like Estes, allergies can make the holidays less than happy. Anything from seasonal greenery to roasted nuts and scented candles may cause wheezing, itchy eyes and a stuffy nose, headaches, digestive upsets or skin irritations.

Roughly 7 million Americans have allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (www.aafa.org). The sign of an immune system in overdrive, allergies often affect otherwise healthy individuals and can surface at any age. Whether you are affected personally or have susceptible friends and family members, you don’t have to let allergies sabotage the holiday spirit.

Specific Triggers

How do you handle common culprits of the season? Here are some ideas.

Trees and other greenery. The trees and wreaths themselves might not be as problematic as the mold or pollen they may harbor. Spraying live greens with a garden hose before bringing them indoors can minimize this allergy source. Some retailers have shaking machines that physically remove many allergens from trees.

Inside, place greenery in a well-ventilated area and limit indoor time to no more than a week or two, recommends Eric Clark, MD, of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Artificial trees can also cause problems if mold or dust accumulates during storage, so it’s best to wipe them with a cloth before assembly.

Decorations. Love the embroidered stocking your grandmother made? If it was stored in a damp basement or musty attic, it could be harboring molds, dust mites and other allergens, Clark says.

A better idea is to use plastic, metal or glass decorations that don’t hold dust mites like fabric can. Wash stockings, tree skirts and anything else made of fabric or other porous materials before displaying. “Storing them in dry plastic totes off-season can help,” Clark adds.

Firewood. Wood stored outdoors may be musty or moldy. Skip the fire if smoke irritates sinuses or provokes an asthma attack. (“I do miss a roaring fire in our fireplace,” Estes laments.) You can at least partially replicate the effect with a gas or electric fireplace.

Fragrances. Holiday candles, potpourri and perfumes may cause trouble; not only can the scents be irritating, but indoor candles also create soot. Unscented beeswax or soy candles are less likely to create problems than those made with paraffin. Go easy on strong-scented plants such as gardenias and pine wreaths. Even baking odors may trigger discomfort, so use kitchen exhaust fans vented to the outdoors.

Party Food Hazards

What would the season be without roasted chestnuts and eggnog? For many people, the answer is healthy; anyone suffering from food allergies must be especially careful during the holidays. “Potluck celebrations are popular, and cross-contact [allergen remnants transferred via utensils or containers] happens more readily,” says Maria Acebal, CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (www.foodallergy.org). Read labels, and if you’re susceptible, refuse to eat any food that doesn’t have an ingredient list—sorry, that includes homemade goodies.

“If you’re hosting a holiday event, ask guests beforehand if they have food allergies or intolerances and don’t be offended if a guest offers to bring her own food or asks to read package labels,” Acebal says. The risk for accidental ingestion increases with hidden allergens in readily available party foods that include nuts, shellfish, chocolate, eggs, wheat and milk. If you’re a holiday hostess, provide a selection of foods without these ingredients.

One major source of food-related misery is gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat and rye. In some people an autoimmune reaction to gluten can damage the inner lining of the small intestine, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Fortunately, the availability of foods made with gluten-free grains such as amaranth, quinoa, millet and (despite its name) buckwheat is increasing.

Because school parties can be disastrous for kids with food allergies, remind your child’s teacher of any allergies before any classroom parties with potentially dangerous treats. Offer to bring treats for your child’s class to help guarantee safe snacking for everyone, or send acceptable party foods for your child.

Anti-Allergy Options

Improving indoor air quality makes it less likely that holiday guests (or sensitive family members) will have allergy problems. If you live in a house that was built since the 1960s or 70s, keep in mind that many modern homes are extremely energy-efficient, with tight weather stripping that keeps musty odors and allergens from escaping. That means you must be proactive in holding down the allergen count.

If you have a fireplace, keep your chimney clean, check the vents and close fireplace doors to keep smoke from entering the house—opening the flue isn’t enough if someone has asthma. Clean or replace furnace filters whenever you can’t see light through the filter. Basements, bathrooms and closets may harbor moist air, creating the perfect environment for mold or mildew. Check humidity levels with a simple gauge purchased at the hardware store, and use a dehumidifier if levels exceed 50%. In addition, an air filter can help improve air quality.

Breathing Easier

In addition to reducing allergen exposure, it helps to live an allergy-fighting lifestyle. Many alternative medicine practitioners suggest their patients use a neti pot, which irrigates the nasal passages with warm salt water. “Everyone with allergies, asthma or sinus issues needs to be using this simple device,” says Fred Pescatore, MD, author of The Allergy and Asthma Cure (Wiley).

Certain foods may cause respiratory problems in susceptible people; keeping a food-versus-symptom diary for a week or two may help pinpoint dietary offenders. Pescatore recommends eliminating sugar, yeast and simple carbohydrates altogether, and instead concentrating on organic produce and lean protein. Some practitioners suggest eating small amounts of raw, locally produced honey. They believe the trace amounts of local allergens found in such honey may help reduce allergic reactions.

Dietary supplements may also help fight allergic reactions. Ayurvedic medicine, India’s traditional healing practice, combines seven herbs—including ginger, long and black peppers, Indian gooseberry, lebbeck, haritaki and bibhitaki—to help reduce inflammation, open airways, stop spasms and ease coughs. Pescatore suggests taking vitamins A, C and D3, along with the flavonoid quercetin, the pine-tree extract Pycnogenol and the mushroom extract AHCC, and the herb stinging nettle.

Getting together with family and friends is a wonderful holiday tradition. Taking some simple steps to avoid allergens can make it a healthy one as well.

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